Monthly Archives: November 2018

Wednesday Weed – Christmas Rose

Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger)

Dear Readers, it might seem a bit early to start talking about all things Christmas-related, but the flowers of the Christmas rose are so striking that I couldn’t resist. Spotted in a window box on the County Roads in East Finchley, they are not roses at all but hellebores, members of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). That the Latin species name for this plant (niger) means ‘black’ when the flower is pure white is a little confusing, but it probably refers to the roots. The word ‘Helleborus’ comes from the Greek words ellos, meaning ‘fawn’ and bora, meaning ‘food’  – I love the idea of young deer munching upon it, although some commentators remark that it is deer resistant. The grazers would have to be careful though, because, like all hellebores, Christmas rose is poisonous, though probably less so than some other species. Handling the seeds can cause skin irritation as well. It is also toxic to dogs and cats, so be careful if you have pets and want to bring the plant indoors.

In spite of its poisonous nature, Christmas rose has been used medicinally, as a purgative following poisoning, and as a antihelminthic (a new word to me) for parasites in children. Too much hellebore, however, and it’s quite possible to kill the child. It has also been used as a laxative. I would strongly advise leaving it to look pretty in the garden in the dark early months of the year rather than adding it to a sandwich.

In the wild, Christmas rose is an Alpine plant, found in Switzerland, southern Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and northern Italy. I suspect that the flowers will be rather smaller in the wild than in our gardens. This can be a difficult plant to grow, preferring humus-rich soil and dappled shade, and disliking acidity, but when it’s happy, it’s delightful.

Photo One by By Robert Hundsdorfer - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19318105

Christmas rose in the Austrian Alps (Photo One)

Traditionally, Christmas rose was said to have arisen from the tears of a young girl who had no gift to give to the infant Christ. It often isn’t in flower by Christmas, but may be bursting forth by 6th January, which was Christmas Day under the old Julian calendar. Obviously the ones that I photographed hadn’t got the memo about their flowering date.  It is also believed that standing on powder made from the roots of a Christmas rose will make you invisible, which is a splendid idea, what with Christmas coming and all those crowds to navigate. Should you have the urge to dig a Christmas rose up you should, according to Pliny, make sure that you are not spotted by an eagle, because the bird will swoop down and cause your death (an unlikely event in East Finchley but then I’m extremely risk averse). Pliny also suggests that, having scanned the sky for any birds of prey, you should draw a circle around the plant, face east and offer up a prayer before picking up your spade.

No other luminary than Charles Darwin, with his usual close attention, noticed something unusual about the change in the Christmas rose once it’s pollinated. The pure white flower goes green, and its shape changes, as can clearly be seen in the photo below, where the blooms show the various stages of the change, from top to bottom. I’m not sure whether this a plant strategy to deter insects from trying to pollinate a flower that is already impregnated, or just a sign, as Darwin thought, that the plant colour is related to the production of nectar which is not required once the bloom has fulfilled its purpose. Of course, it could also be both. Nature is nothing if not complex and interconnected.

Photo Two by No machine-readable author provided. Migas assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The fruit of the Christmas rose (Photo Two)

Although Christmas rose has no scent, that hasn’t stopped an Italian perfume company from knocking up a perfume that purports to smell like the flower. However, the bottle is very pretty, and the aroma includes lilac, jasmine and fig, so it’s probably very pleasant. On the other hand, having loved ‘smellies’ all my life, I find that, as I get older, I find most of them  faintly nauseating. I feel very sorry for anyone who has a more sensitive nose than mine, and also for the many people who find being in close contact with strong smells, even pleasant ones, overwhelming. Not that this is a new problem. My Dad, who was a bus conductor in his young days, said that the smell of women’s perfume on the top deck was sometimes so strong that it made his stomach turn.

Photo Three from https://www.erbaflor.com/en/shop/the-scents-of-nature/the-christmas-rose-en/christmas-rose-perfume-1-detail

Christmas rose toiletries from Erbaflor (Photo Three)

And here is a rather lovely poem by Michael Newman, published online by Acumen magazine.It seems to me to sum up the unexpected quality of plants that bloom in the midwinter. They always feel so precious, for being so rare.

Winter Colour

Blush-shy,
The flower rises
From the soil,
Then opens into white apparition,
Helleborus niger,
The Christmas Rose.

On such a grey and rain-rotten day,
I welcome this affirmation

Of unbridled joy:

 

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Robert Hundsdorfer – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19318105

Photo Two by No machine-readable author provided. Migas assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three from https://www.erbaflor.com/en/shop/the-scents-of-nature/the-christmas-rose-en/christmas-rose-perfume-1-detail

Coming Down, Going Up…

Dear Readers, this might look like a perfectly normal staircase, but until a few days ago it had a stairlift on the left-hand side. We had hired this back in 2013 when Mum and Dad could no longer walk up the stairs, what with Dad’s breathlessness and Mum’s arthritis. We knew that it would probably only be used once a year, at Christmas, but it seemed well worth the investment. At least they could have a family Christmas with us.

The first time Mum used it, she took to it straight away, but Dad was more unsure. I heard Mum and Dad talking in the bedroom as they unpacked on that first afternoon.

‘I don’t like it, Syb’, said Dad. ‘It doesn’t feel safe’.

‘Well, you’ll have to get to like it, Tom, because otherwise we can’t come to visit’, said Mum.

In the end, Dad quite got to like it, riding up and down the stairs to collect his tablets and his walking stick (which was always in the wrong part of the house). But last year, we went to Milborne St Andrew to stay with them because they had had a chest infection, and were too ill to travel. And this year, we will be visiting them in the nursing home.

it seemed like time to remove the stairlift. After all, I told myself, if there was a miracle and they felt a bit better, we could always get it installed again.

What surprised me was the speed with which it went. I sent off an email, and the engineer phoned me the next day, to say that he was in the area and could he pop in and dismantle it?

A few hours later, I had my staircase back.

My heart has been very heavy this past few weeks. After all the effort of organising the nursing home for Mum and Dad, it seems strange not to be constantly occupied with carer rotas and medical appointments and trips up and down to Dorset. Mum is still very unhappy in the care home and that weighs heavily on my mind. But today I actually looked out of the kitchen window. This is kind of difficult because my two ‘pet’ orb-web spiders have been busy while I’ve been so preoccupied and have built a kind of spider metropolis between the ceiling and the windowpanes. But outside, whirring and clicking and fighting and bickering, were the starlings.

Their feathers really are star-spangled at this time of year. I wondered how many of them were this year’s dull-brown babies, all spivvied up for the winter? As the breeding season approaches in the spring, the bills of the adults will turn bright-lemon yellow, with the area of the beak closest to the face turning blue-grey in males, pinkish-white in females.

The colder weather this week has drawn them all together, and the flocks that descend onto the bird feeders ebb and flow all day. Starlings used to migrate south in the winter but, thanks to the suet pellets and fat balls provided by humans, many now stick around all year. The ones in East Finchley are certainly a constant presence.

And as is often the way, a few minutes spent with starlings seems to give me an injection of energy. Depression stalks me as it has for many years, but there is help in the sight and sound of these birds, fizzing and chuckling and arguing, reminds me that there is a big, complicated world out there. For a few moments, I’m not living in my head, and that is such a relief. And, just to give you an idea of the starling’s vocal range and ability to imitate, here are two rescued starlings mixing it up…

http://www.lloydbuck.co.uk/2018/06/11/beatboxing-starlings/

 

Wednesday Weed – Cosmos

Cosmos bipinnatus

Dear Readers, now that it’s the middle of November it’s becoming harder and  harder to find plants that are not only still in flower, but are new to the Wednesday Weed. So this week I was delighted to find a pot of cosmos still in flower. These are great late-autumn plants, beloved by pollinators (if there are any about), and they come in a delightful array of pink, white and cerise. The delicate pale green foliage is also very fresh and toothsome-looking.

Cosmos is a genus of plants in the daisy family and includes such delights as chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus), which is said to smell vaguely of cocoa, and which has dark reddish-brown flowers.

Photo One by By Björn Appel - self made by Björn Appel, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=250892

Chocolate cosmos (Photo One)

‘Our’ cosmos, Cosmos bipinnatus, is a half-hardy annual. It self-seeds, and the flowers may come up for several years, though in my experience they get smaller and smaller with each iteration. . It comes originally from Mexico, hence its alternative name of Mexican aster, and arrived in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. In some parts of the world (such as Australia and Asia) it has become an invasive weed, but in Europe the temperatures are too cold in winter for the plant to get a proper foothold.

Cosmos is a floppy kind of plant, prone to keeling over in high winds and not getting up again. Growing a lot of the plant in one place helps a bit, as the leaves interlock and form something of a framework for support. It can look very impressive en masse, and is a popular cut flower. In Japan, the rice paddies are sometimes planted with cosmos to provide autumn colour for after the crop is harvested.

Photo Two by By KENPEI - KENPEI's photo, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1360530

A cosmos field…(Photo Two)

The plant is a great source of late-season nectar. In North America, migrating monarch butterflies use it as a refuelling stop on their way south.

Photo Three by Bernard Spragg from https://www.flickr.com/photos/volvob12b/9252673241

Monarch butterfly on cosmos (Photo Three)

In Europe it provides nectar and pollen for many insects, including this comma butterfly.

Photo Four - no attribution required. http://www.wallcoo.net/flower/wild_flowers_cosmos/wild_flower_cosmos_photo_90446286.html

Cosmos and comma (Photo Four)

In Central and South America, cosmos has been used to make an anti-inflammatory ointment, and the young leaves are eaten as a salad and as a pot herb. The petals can also be used to brighten up a dessert. A closely related species, Cosmos sulphureus, has been used to produce yellow and orange dye. In the language of flowers cosmos is said to symbolise innocence, and I imagine that the white-flowered variety is especially appealing in this regard.

It is said that cosmos was cultivated in the gardens of Spanish mission priests in Mexico, as a manifestation of divine order. Certainly, a close look at the flowerhead is an object lesson in geometry. There is a kind of harmony about it that reminds me of the cosmos, in the sense of the galaxy.

Photo Five by By Frank Vincentz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3414943

Centre of a cosmos flower (Photo Five)

And now, here’s a poem. Although cosmos is not native to Japan, it seems to have many adherents in the country. Here is a poem by Yosano Akiko (1878-1942):

Your heart remains
just as unsettled, like
the wavering
of a cosmos flower
after the bee is gone. 

I think that it captures that moment just after something has happened, when equilibrium is yet to be re-established. There is such a sense of stillness about it. And it captures the delicacy of cosmos, which can seem such a brash, cheerful plant, and which yet has a subtle elegance. I am thinking that next year I will definitely plant a pot!

Photo Six by By Joydeep, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23763201

Photo Six

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Björn Appel – self made by Björn Appel, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=250892

Photo Two by By KENPEI – KENPEI’s photo, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1360530

Photo Three by Bernard Spragg from https://www.flickr.com/photos/volvob12b/9252673241

Photo Four – no attribution required. http://www.wallcoo.net/flower/wild_flowers_cosmos/wild_flower_cosmos_photo_90446286.html

Photo Five by By Frank Vincentz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3414943

Photo Six by By Joydeep, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23763201

Autumn in Cherry Tree Wood

Dear Readers, those of you who have been following this blog for a while will know that it hasn’t been the easiest of years, what with the gradual decline in my parents’ health, and the recent decision to admit them to a nursing home. In the aftermath of all this, I find myself vulnerable, as if I’ve lost a layer of skin. The downside is that I never know what will make me cry: an advert on the television, a snippet of an old song, a memory conjured out of nowhere. But the upside is that I am seeing things as if anew. I can be caught by a glimpse of sudden beauty that stuns me into stillness. This can make me cry too, but there is less of despair and loss, and more of hope about it. And so I took myself off for a walk in Cherry Tree Wood in East Finchley at this breeziest, sunniest time of the year, just to see what I could see.

A trio of bright pink leaves caught my eye to start with. Nothing natural here, unless you include the tendency of the human to want to mark their territory. Once seen, I noticed it everywhere.

But for the first time I noticed how the hornbeam and oak trees are dancing, their trunks twisting as they reach towards the sun, but on a timescale much slower than our own. What tangos would be captured by a stop motion sequence! They lean back, they swivel, they revolve around their own axis, trying to find a space in the canopy, a dance of years and decades rather than moments, but a dance none the less.

And in the main part of the wood a huge oak rises from a lake of golden  leaves. How many autumns has this giant seen  come and go? And of the eight autumns that I have had in East Finchley, how come this is the first time that I’ve noticed it?

And among the leaves, the squirrels are everywhere. They come in all shapes and sizes, from skinny little runts to great fat imperial squirrels. Most of them are carrying an acorn in their mouths, and they will bury their prize in the ivy or under a layer of oak leaves.  Some tiny proportion of the nuts that they don’t eat during the winter will germinate, some  of them far from their parent tree, and the dance towards the canopy will start all over again.

Turning dizzy laps in the woods is a small  white dog.He skids past me, leaves flying in all directions, and heads back, ears flapping, tongue lolling. He hurtles along the path and increases the diameter of the circle. I don’t know where his owner is, but I sense they are somewhere at the epicentre, like the sun.

I catch glimpses of him as I walk on through the woods. Once, there would have been deer here, but today he seems like the spirit of the place, a dishevelled London pooch, full of life and spirit. And when I stopped to film the falling leaves, there he was.

There is so much to be said for a slow, careful walk in autumn. The colours, the movement, the smell of burning leaves and damp vegetation, the call of crows and the whistle of starlings all serve to remind me that outside my poor, overworked brain there are other lives going on. However lonely we might feel when tough times come to visit, we are part of something so much bigger.

 

Wednesday Weed – Gaura

Gaura lindheimeri with Verbena bonariensis

Dear Readers, it’s funny how fashions in gardening change. When I was young, stiff, regimented armies of geraniums and alyssum and blue lobelia were the way to go, with the occasional radical individual throwing in a few French marigolds for good measure. But just lately the trend has been towards much more informal beds, featuring feathery grasses as a backdrop, interspersed with more delicate-looking perennials. So I was not surprised when I looked around the new houses that have been built off Grand Avenue in Muswell Hill and found these butterfly-like Gaura dancing in the breeze.

We have one gardener to thank for this move towards ‘prairie-style’ planting, and that’s Piet Oudolf. He designed the  planting the Olympic Park in Stratford, the High Line in New York and the meadows at the Hauser and Wirth gallery in Somerset among many, many others. I have been hugely influenced by him too, although this relaxed look is in some ways even more difficult to create and maintain than a Tudor knot garden. I love how they look, though, and that they have such value, when done right, for birds and invertebrates.

Oudolf created his own strain of Gaura, ‘Whirling Butterflies’, to complement his garden style. Thank you very much, sir! I am fairly sure that this is the variety in my photographs.

Photo One from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jun/30/piet-oudolf-gardens-hampton-court-palace-flower-show#img-1 photo by Jason Ingram

Hauser and Wirth gallery meadow (Photo One)

Actually, although it looks as if a puff of wind would blow it over, Gaura is one tough plant. It doesn’t mind being exposed. It doesn’t mind heat. It doesn’t mind drought.  I suspect that it doesn’t much like heavy soil, as the ones that I planted in my garden expired almost instantly. It is said to be deer-resistant, which is not much of an advantage in East Finchley where the only deer is the plaster one on top of the Bald-Faced Stag pub.  But the plant does, apparently, relish being given a hair cut regularly, and its floppiness can be offset by planting it amongst more upright plants which will support it, such as the Verbena bonariensis in the photo above.

Actually, Gaura is no longer the official name for this plant: its new Latin name is Oenothera lindheimeri which reflects that it is part of the evening primrose family, though it looks nothing like a classic evening primrose.  I shall keep the name Gaura for this piece, as this is how most people know the plant. It has a variety of vernacular names, including Lindheimer’s beeblossom and Indian feather in its native Louisiana and Texas.

This is a plant that flowers prolifically when it’s happy, from early spring right through to the first frosts. Each  stem produces many white or pink flowers, and in some varieties the petals start off white at dawn and turn pink during the day, before falling off at dusk.

Photo Two by By JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6362117

‘Whirling butterflies’ (Photo Two)

And here is one of the pink varieties, ‘Siskiyou Pink’. Note that it’s being pollinated by a fly – most members of the evening primrose family are insect pollinated, and some have very specific relationships with particular types of invertebrates, such as moths.

Photo Two by Wendy Cutler from Vancouver, Canada [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Siskiyou Pink (Photo Two)

The original name ‘Gaura lindheimeri‘ comes from Gaura, the Greek for ‘superb’, and from the name of the German botanist Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer (1801 – 1879), who collected plants in Texas for Asa Gray, the Harvard professor of botany for several decades. Lindheimer collected over 1500 species in the south Texas area in thirteen years, and is known as the Father of Texas Botany, with over twenty species bearing his name.

Incidentally, in Icelandic the word ‘gaur‘ means a gangly, unruly boy. Completely coincidental, I’m sure.

Ferdinand LIndheimer

Gaura was used medicinally in several ways by the native peoples of the US – the Hopi used a decoction of the roots to treat snakebite, and the Navajo used it as a burn dressing and to treat inflammation. A close relative of ‘our’ Gaura, Gaura coccinea, is said to be good for erasing freckles, though why anyone would want to rid themselves of these delightful little speckles is beyond me. Blank perfection is extremely overrated in my view. It’s sometimes as if we want to photoshop ourselves into non-existence.

And here is a poem. Written by Anca Vlasopolos, who was born in Romania and who has lived in Detroit for many years, it conjures up the feeling of panic I sometimes get on those strange days when the weather is unseasonal, and the animals are confused, and vulnerable. Vlasopolos is a passionate environmentalist, poet, ceramicist and teacher. I shall be reading more of her work, for sure.

Tardy Bugs

this october warm haze cheats
us into hallucinating summer
roses pump up sparse buds with a fury that would
give cabbage blooms if this weather went on
bumblebees nap on gaura flowers bending swaying
on filaments

the afternoon blushes
an efflorescence
inexplicable numbers fill the air
settle on brick on white door as if on sandy beaches
                                              in the Bahamas
eyeing rapacious eyes staring from leaves of the crabapple
that now is animate with screams and jostlings
i urge these absurd polka-dot balls underground
you don’t know what’s coming and if you all get caught
by a frost, get picked out by beaks like coins thrown among
crowds what’ll happen in spring when the ants will shepherd
their aphid flocks up the tenderest shoots i say as i brush them
away from the crack of the door
they bursting orange then gathering themselves into
compact hemispheres soaking soaking the last of the sun

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jun/30/piet-oudolf-gardens-hampton-court-palace-flower-show#img-1 photo by Jason Ingram

Photo Two by By JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6362117

Photo Two by Wendy Cutler from Vancouver, Canada [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

Barnwood, East Finchley

Dear Readers, there is a little patch of green and gold wildness in Tarling Road, just off Oak Lane in East Finchley.  For many years it has been locked up behind a chain mesh fence and allowed to go its own way, with brambles bursting into berry and the leaves of sycamore yellowing and falling. But this is all about to change. This secret place is going to be managed as a space for the whole of the local community, from fungi and plants and birds to people.

I met Leo Smith, a member of Grange Big Local and one of the people behind the site’s resurrection. Leo has form when it comes to wildlife gardening. Look at this wonderful hedge that he planted 9 years ago.

The site used to form part of the grounds of the Old Barn Community Centre, (hence the name  ‘Barnwood’) but when the community centre fell into disuse, the little wood was left neglected and unloved. For many years Leo and other local people  have seen the potential of this tiny site, and have wanted to make it a place that people could visit. The first stage has already begun – paths have emerged through the bramble thickets, each one curved so that you can’t see what’s around the next corner.

Each twist  reveals something something new in this overgrown but enigmatic site.

In the very middle of the wood an open space has been cleared. This is where Leo envisages that events will take place. Maybe people will carve wood into benches, or make bug hotels, or put up bird and bat boxes. Maybe they will sit and tell stories, or share their memories. Maybe children will learn about the wildlife and plants that surround them. There is so much possibility here.

Maybe people will harvest the blackberries, or even get to the cobnuts before the squirrels.

There are other plans, but the important thing is balance. There might be a rain garden, or a wildflower meadow, to increase the biodiversity of the site. Some trees are in a dangerous condition, and may need to be cut down, but others will be planted in their place. People will be able to walk straight from the spanking new (and currently empty) community centre into Barnwood.

The new (empty) community centre

It’s possible to underestimate the importance of tiny wild places such as Barnwood. But in a city, every resting place and food stop for birds and insects is important. As I have a cup of tea with Leo after the visit, we discuss all the birds that we’ve seen in East Finchley, and watch as the goldfinches and chaffinches visit Leo’s feeders. A patch of trees and shrubs might not account for much on its own, but when you see how it forms a corridor with other green places in the area, you start to appreciate how animals can survive even in the built-up environment of the city.  And the plan will make the site even more attractive to birds and invertebrates. Every half-acre counts, whether it’s a garden or a park or a place like Barnwood.

On Sunday 25th November, from 1-3 pm, there will be a community bulb planting event at Barnwood. Native snowdrops will be planted, as part of the Holocaust memorial, and as a symbol of new beginnings, hope, purity and consolation, alongside native bluebells and snake’s head fritillaries. All are most welcome.

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Old Man’s Beard

Old man’s beard (Clematis vitalba)

Dear Readers, I have searched long and hard for this plant in East Finchley, only to find it in abundance when I did my Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park walk a few weeks ago. It is our only native clematis, and has a variety of vernacular names. The sixteenth-century writer and herbalist John Gerard christened it ‘traveller’s-joy’ :

These plants have no use in physick as yet found out, but are esteemed only for pleasure, by reason of the  goodly shadow which they make with their thick bushing and climbing, as also for the beauty of the flowers, and the pleasant scent or savour of the same’.

The fluffy ‘hair-do’ seedheads are indeed a delight, and the flowers, though small, can be extremely abundant. I’ve never savoured the scent, but they are said to smell faintly of almond.

Photo One by By Hectonichus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15699562

Old man’s beard flowers (Photo One)

The plant is a member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) and is found in the UK roughly south of a line from the Mersey to the Humber. It has been widely planted in other places, however, and is considered invasive in countries such as New Zealand. Left to its own devices, it can form a thick canopy that shades out other plants. However, in the UK it is the sole foodplant of several species of moths, including the small emerald, small waved umber and Haworth’s pug, who help to keep it under control.

Photo Two by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (http://www.entomart.be/contact.html), but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=293985

Small emerald (Hemistola chrysoprasaria) (Photo Two)

Photo Three by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (http://www.entomart.be/contact.html), but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=823634

Small waved umber (Horisme vitalbata) (Photo Three)

Photo Four by By Donald Hobern from Canberra, Australia - Eupithecia haworthiata, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5000120

Haworth’s pug (Eupithecia haworthiata) (Photo Four)

The dry winter stems of old man’s beard have been used as cigarette substitutes, giving old names such as ‘smokewood’ and ‘boy’s bacca’.  In Slovenia the stems were was used to tie sheaves of grain together, because it was believed that mice wouldn’t gnaw on them. The stems have also been used to make baskets and rope since the Stone Age.

In Italy, the boiled buds are used in omelettes called ‘Fritatta di vitalbini’ and are considered a delicacy.

Photo Five from http://ricettetoscane.altervista.org/frittata-di-vitalbini.html

Frittata di vitalbine (Photo Five)

In spite of Gerard’s belief that the plant was not used for ‘physick’, a juice made from old man’s beard was used in the nostrils to cure migraine. I find the warning that ‘it can also destroy the mucous membranes’ a little alarming, however, and the Poison Garden website describes it as follows:

‘Ingestion leads to severe abdominal pain, gastrointestinal irritation and has caused death in cattle though it is not usually eaten because it has an acrid taste and contact can cause skin irritation‘.

In short, old man’s beard is a plant to be used well-boiled, or not at all.

The Bittersweet Gourmet website describes how

medieval beggars and mendicant friars would enlist vitalba’s venomous qualities to bring about sores on the skin, to achieve a more pitiable appearance before those potentially charitable souls whom they passed on the road‘.

In French, the plant is known as ‘herbe aux geaux‘, or rascal’s herb, so presumably this effect was well known across the plant’s range.

From a folkloric point of view, old man’s beard bears a double meaning, as is so often the way. It was said by countryfolk to do the devil’s work, because it smothered other plants and killed them. It is also associated with the Virgin Mary and with God because of its white flowers, and another vernacular name for the plant is ‘Virgin’s bower’. I can well imagine resting on a bed of these fluffy white seedheads, or reclining among the sweet-scented flowers.

I have been quite remiss on the poetry front for this past few weeks, but here’s a piece by Edward Thomas to make up for it. He really is one of the best of England’s poets with regard to his appreciation of the countryside. ‘A mouthful of earth to remedy all’, indeed.

The Sign-Post

The dim sea glints chill. The white sun is shy,
And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry,
Rough, long grasses keep white with frost
At the hilltop by the finger-post;
The smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffed
Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.
I read the sign. Which way shall I go?
A voice says: You would not have doubted so
At twenty. Another voice gentle with scorn
Says: At twenty you wished you had never been born.
One hazel lost a leaf of gold
From a tuft at the tip, when the first voice told
The other he wished to know what ’twould be
To be sixty by this same post. “You shall see,”
He laughed—and I had to join his laughter—
“You shall see; but either before or after,
Whatever happens, it must befall,
A mouthful of earth to remedy all
Regrets and wishes shall freely be given;
And if there be a flaw in that heaven
’Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may be
To be here or anywhere talking to me,
No matter what the weather, on earth,
At any age between death and birth,
To see what day or night can be,
The sun and the frost, the land and the sea,
Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring,—
With a poor man of any sort, down to a king,
Standing upright out in the air
Wondering where he shall journey, O where?”

 

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Hectonichus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15699562

Photo Two by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (http://www.entomart.be/contact.html), but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=293985

Photo Three by By ©entomartIn case of publication or commercial use, Entomart wishes then to be warned (http://www.entomart.be/contact.html), but this without obligation. Thank you., Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=823634

Photo Four by By Donald Hobern from Canberra, Australia – Eupithecia haworthiata, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5000120

Photo Five from http://ricettetoscane.altervista.org/frittata-di-vitalbini.html